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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

A Dearly Bought Right, Too Little Exercised

Friday morning, after a thirty-mile-drive on a winding two-lane road through an autumnal landscape, alongside pastures lined with New York Asters and goldenrod, in weather that was sunny only when it wasn't misty, we pulled up behind an attractive building in our courthouse complex. Early voting had begun Thursday, and North Carolina is a closely divided state dominated by gerrymandering where victory often depends on razor-thin margins. We didn't know what to expect in such a hotly contested race, but there were parking spaces and no line - probably because we'd come prepared with umbrellas and power bars in case we had to wait for hours. Inside, we walked straight into the voting area where a large group of cheerful officials had everything safely and cleverly organized. Voting was quick, easy, and painless. It was also free from fear - from the super-strong hand sanitizer that a smiling official handed you at the door, to the Plexiglas dividers between poll workers and voters, to the voting booths that were sanitized as soon as the preceding voter left, to the pencils that were sanitized as soon as you set them down even as you were being handed more hand sanitizer, you felt as if someone with brains and forethought had managed everything so there wouldn't be any mysterious positive tests a few days later. It was very impressive.

As we left, we asked the official who stood by the scanning machine to help if there were a problem how many had voted the first day. He said over 700, and we'd already heard someone say over 100 had voted Friday even though it wasn't even ten when we walked out the door. And this is in a county that, in spite of its size (429 square miles), has a population of less than 28,000. And there were still fifteen days of early voting to go. The news appears to be much the same nationwide - there's a huge surge in both mail-in ballots and early voting.

It looks as if participation in this election is going to be greater than in years. Let's hope so, because in recent decades our voting turnout has been dismal, ranging usually in the mid-50% range. The Christian Science Monitor predicts 2020 turnout will be the highest since 1908, when Republican William Howard Taft defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Clearly, Americans have traditionally taken voting too much for granted, yet it isn't a given. Even here, different groups have been granted the franchise at different times. After Independence, it was up to individual states to decide who could vote, and the national franchise expanded very gradually:

  • 1787 onward - property-owning white men
  • 1856 onward - all white men, whether property owners or not
  • 1868-1870 - African-American men (Southern states made many efforts to suppress Black vote in spite of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments)
  • 1919 - Native Americans and other racial minority men who had served in World War I
  • 1920 - Women who were citizens
  • 1924 - Native Americans (many states still disenfranchised them at polls)
  • 1952 - Asian Americans
  • 1961 - Residents of the District of Columbia (only in Presidential elections)
  • 1965 - Voting Rights Act removed discriminatory barriers that kept many people of color from voting.
  • 1971 - Voting age lowered from 21 to 18.
  • 1993 - National Voter Registration Act streamlined the voter registration process by allowing people to register to vote at DMVs and public assistance centers.

Our right to vote has been earned since the beginning of the republic, by political persistence, press oversight, and the blood shed by all the soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice on distant battlefields to make sure that America remains free so that we can choose to vote or not..

It's good to see the right so dearly bought being so generously exercised.

Maggie's Political Maxims

Whenever elections come around, especially this one that must be breaking all records for persistent unpleasantness, I am reminded of my grandmother Maggie. She was smart, a constant reader, and an obsessive follower of politics. Totally opinionated, of course, but with very strict rules about where and with whom those opinions should be shared.
"A lady or a gentleman," she would say, "never discusses sex, religion, politics, or money." What she meant, of course, was that one never discussed them unless one was absolutely certain that the other party to the conversation was in total agreement with what one would say. Her reasoning was simple. These were all topics about which people tend to feel strongly. Words are, she knew, powerful and, once spoken, linger forever in the background of any relationship, no matter how strong or long-standing. The wrong words could taint forever lifetime associations.
"You may never know," Maggie said, "if you're embarrassing someone or even hurting their feelings when you start making pronouncements about these things. Is the risk worth it? Do you really care more about some politician or funny story or showing off or even what the preacher said more than you care about the person to whom you're talking? Think about it before you open your mouth too wide."
Having said that, I feel compelled to repeat my personal favorite of her political maxims. "When a politician starts talking about virtue and family values, lock up the silver and all the pretty daughters."
Regretfully, RIP Maggie. And, totally non-regretfully, RIP sooner rather than later this tsunami of political hatefulness.


It's one of those fall days that, thanks to climate change, come too rarely these days, even in the mountains. The air is crisp. The sky's a brilliant, almost piercing blue. The clouds are not only puffy, but actually white. The still-copious leaves on the copper beeches at the top of the ridge glow in the sun like points of flame. It's the kind of day that makes it hard to go inside to the office and write. It's especially the kind of day when it seems particularly cruel to think of death.


Her name was Jeri, and she was my mother's first cousin. We never met, so I did not know her in the way one knows those encountered face to face. From phone conversations, however, it was clear she was a woman of grace, courage, and strong opinions. Now, months after the event, I have discovered that she died. I knew she'd been ill with one thing or another for years, but the news was still a shock. 


Both my maternal grandparents had several siblings, so there were many cousins, some of whom lived nowhere near, several of whom were the offspring of much older or younger siblings with whom my grandparents were not especially close. Jeri fell into both those categories. In fact, I'd never even heard of her until long after my mother's death, when another cousin, met through Ancestry, mentioned her and provided a phone number. When I called, Jeri was appropriately cautious, but we discovered shared interests - family history, politics, and (most importantly) food.


All the cousins in Mother's generation seem to have shared two traits: beauty and cookery skills, and Jeri was no exception. The beauty part was clear from photographs we exchanged. As for the cookery? When she learned Robert and I enjoy afternoon tea on special occasions, Jeri began to send us sizable boxes of homemade treats. Poppy-seed cakes. Cookies of various kinds. Chocolate-covered cherries. Each box would hold enough for several teas, and everything she sent was fresh and of professional quality. Over time, I learned that Jeri loved to bake, in fact viewed it as one of her life's most important missions to share her kitchen's output. Like many prolific bakers, she had more than one stove, each serving the needs of different types of food. From her crowded kitchen she supplied food to the Scout troops of her children as they grew up, the various women's committees of her church, her husband's business entertainments, political fundraisers, and fellow volunteers with whom she worked on community projects. Sitting here, thinking about it, it seems to me that, over the decades, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people ate Jeri's cakes, pies, cookies, candies. Her talents touched many people, and she never stopped using her abilities to benefit others, even when she had to nurse two of her adult children who, one after the other, suffered lengthy, ultimately fatal illnesses, even when her body at last began to give way to a combination of ailments.


Now, her warm heart is stopped, and the hands that measured, kneaded, sliced, chopped, mixed, shaped, and performed all the other tasks necessary to make the unending parade of food that she produced are stilled. 


That loss of individual capabilties has always seemed to me the biggest waste represented by death. Each of us not only has unique skills but performs them in unique ways to produce unique results. No one else has ever shaped a pie crust's lattice in just that way, or peeled an apple so carefully that light can be seen through the skin.


Now, Jeri's skills are gone too, dust to dust, as they say. There will be no more of the special chocolate-covered cherries, for no one else will ever again be able to do exactly what she did. Given the limitations of our acquaintanceship, that disturbs me to a surprising degree.




Webster defines  "green thumb" as possessing superior plant-handling skills. That's a prosaic definition for a capability that can bring abundance from nothing, resurrect the dying, and achieve maximum results from the healthy. Still, even a dictionary has to start somewhere.

Both my grandmothers had green thumbs, albeit of a very different sort. Ethel's plants marched in precise rows, regimented as to species, size, and color alongside paths of the tiniest, neatly swept pea gravel in off-white. Maggie's, on the other hand, poured in wild profusion over stone walls, around trellises, and across rocks. In Ethel's garden, perennial never touched biennial, much less annual, while in Maggie's Peace roses intertwined comfortably with clematis and four o'clocks jostled with zinnias for prime space.

My mother's plant of choice was succulents, which grew for her like weeds on unlikely window shelves, while my father could grow anything. Give him a seed, a cutting, or a bare-roots plant, and he seemed to know exactly what to do without thinking. He'd grown up on or around farms and had always had a garden. By the time I came along, this was located in the extra lot attached to our house in the suburbs, and one of my earlier memories is watching him prepare and plant it each spring. I hung around, of course, because I was crazy about him and grabbed every opportunity to be part of whatever he was doing, but he must have assumed my persistent presence was proof of a wish to have a garden. This was perhaps why he also assumed that I, his eldest child, would be as natural a gardener as he was.

When I was eight, he decided I was old enough to start my own gardening tradition, which in a way I did. He dug and planted a roughly eight-by-ten plot that would allow me to harvest my own small crop of carrots, radishes, and potatoes. He showed me how to weed and water, and identified insects to watch out for. Then, a believer in allowing children to do things for themselves, he went back to his garden and left me to my own devices. I did exactly what he told me to do, but nothing seemed to thrive as expected. My potatoes were mottled with some sort of virus he said he'd never seen before. The radishes were just about nonexistent. As for the carrots, they were the size of the bright yellow pencils in my book bag − and just about as hard.

Daddy was almost as disappointed as I was, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt and the next spring set me up with another garden. The results were almost the same. The third year he moved the garden, thinking perhaps a different location would help. It didn't, and the year I was eleven, he decided that perhaps my talents lay in a different direction.

That has been pretty much the story of my gardening ever since. Some well-meaning friend or mentor has given me some plant that "anyone can grow" and I've promptly proven them wrong. What's so frustrating is that both my sisters have exhibited truly superior capabilities with both house plants and gardens, systematically producing specimens that could feature in any seed company's catalog. One even devised a complex scheme whereby various daylilies bloomed in her yard in continuous succession from April to October.

Some of my ongoing lack of success has been particularly unfortunate. A monastery east of Atlanta carefully nurtured bonsai trees which it sold to the public. I loved their elegance and the symbolism attached to so much thought and effort. Over a decade I was given, or bought, four different plants, each of which survived just long enough to make me think I'd broken the curse. The last one, which was rapidly transitioning from sickly to sick, I gave away in the nick of time to a friend whose thumb was practically chartreuse. That was two decades ago, and it's still thriving.


What prompts this rather masochistic survey is the fact that this year, for the first time in recent memory, I tried again and I think my luck may be turning. Wanting a type of giant coleus I'd had trouble finding at garden centers and commercial greenhouses, I bought a Gro-Light kit and ordered the precise seeds guaranteed to produce what I was looking for. The result was gratifying. The coleus responded in a predictable, trouble-free manner as I planted, watered, adjusted the lights, and then moved them into pots. They were, in fact, spectacular, exceeding even the showy images in the catalog. It's true that things didn't work out exactly as I'd hoped - plants that were supposed to be 36" high never made it past 28" - but this time I know why. I was late starting the seeds. In 2020 those seeds will be in the grow medium no later than mid-January and I'm anticipating maximum size as well as terrific appearance by mid-summer.


What I'm wondering now is if my thumbs are at last acquiring some of the familial green or if seeds have become so reliable that the color of one's thumbs doesn't matter any more. I'll take the result either way.

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